TESTAMENT – Ruling The Den
Bay Area, California-based thrash metal outfit Testament began to map October 2016 full-length studio album Brotherhood Of The Snake – their 11th, overall – as far back as November 2014, having hoped to begin songwriting sessions earlier that year and issue said platter several months later. Testament’s projected timescale for the affair would not come to pass, however.
“It was quite a long process,” observes Chuck Billy, vocalist of Testament. “It was probably a two-year… Over a two-year process. When we started writing the record I believe in around November 2014, we thought we were gonna attempt to start writing the record, and things just got postponed. Eric did a Dragonlord record for about six months, so then we got together, and started writing the record. It just got dragged out over a long period, and of course we took a couple of tours along the way as well. When we got home from the Slayer tour in March 2016 though, we knew that if we wanted to get a record out this year, we had to have it recorded by June 15th by the time we left for Europe.
“When we went into the studio, we didn’t have a demo done, and we hadn’t rehearsed the songs as a band yet – usually, we do that. Since the songs weren’t coming together as fast as we thought and hoped, we thought if we don’t have a record out, it’s really gonna screw us up. We looked at Gene’s schedule (Hoglan, drums) and saw that Gene had a couple of weeks open in May, so we decided to go ahead and just book the studio, unprepared or not. We went in, and I think there was probably a lot of emotion going into the record; maybe a little anger, frustration, and just being a little scared that we were going in too soon and jumping the gun – trying to rush this, thinking ‘Is this gonna be a mistake?’
“So, a lot was going into this record; a lot of emotion writing it, getting to record it… Everything all above. Everything finally settled down after we tracked all of the record, and a lot of the parts we created in the studio on the spot. Once it was done, we started mixing it and hearing the songs really start coming together. We realised that this was turning out to be a really good record. The songs were turning out to be really strong, so at that point, we kind of knew that this was a good record. I think we topped the last record we did, because you’re always trying to outdo yourself.”
The ambition to improve upon previous Testament records causes pressure all round. “It does,” the frontman agrees. “It all started with The Gathering record (June 1999). That was such a turning point for the band that when we did that record, we were very proud. We were like ‘How are we gonna outdo this?’ There’s always that thought. You just take the songs as they come. I think in our case, from The Gathering to where we are today, we had the original line-up come back in 2005, and we’re working harder and touring harder as a band since 2005. So, I think it’s a whole different band than it was then. I think that the music and songwriting has definitely matured, and I think there’s maybe a little more confidence going into the songwriting process. I think we’re pretty comfortable as a band, who we are, and our place in this metal community.”
The songwriting partnership of Chuck and guitarist Eric Peterson largely authored compositions for Brotherhood Of The Snake, axeman Alex Skolnick absent from the process. “Not at all,” he confirms. “It was just Eric and myself, and Gene came up a couple of times to jam with us. That was really in the early stages of just trying to come up with some riffs and ideas, but most of it was Eric. Eric put together all of the drums and all of the guitars and I put together all of the vocals, so a lot of this record was me and Eric.”
Brotherhood Of The Snake did not experience a smooth birth, which caused anger and frustration among the pair. “It was two years and I was just getting frustrated, like ‘Why can’t you give me the songs? Why can’t we finish them? Why don’t we have the demo done?,’” the singer reveals. “There were just all these unanswered questions, and it just made for really tense situations between me and Eric, and without exploding on him and destroying the band. It was pretty heavy, but I think everything that we maybe had to go through on this record was the reason we had to do it. I don’t think maybe we would’ve got out the record that we did if there wasn’t something driving us, and making it easy.
“If it was easy, I think we would try to put out a record every year (laughs). It’s not that easy, though. When we write, we don’t write extra songs. We write for this record only, because we don’t want to put out a record two, three, or four years later that is the same songs that we created in the same mood four years ago. So, we don’t write extra songs. Everything we write is new for the record that we’re doing at the time.”
Albeit not experiencing a smooth birth, Chuck naturally views Brotherhood Of The Snake in a favourable light. “I think it’s definitely some of our best work,” he endorses. “I’d say as far as maybe songwriting, the lyrics, the production, everything is a step up from everything we’ve done I think. Again though, a lot of that is based on just what we went through to do this record. We were trying to make a schedule but we just couldn’t meet the deadlines, and so everybody’s emotions were just so like ‘Shit… What’s wrong? How come we can’t do it?’ You’re nervous that if you put out a bad record that it’s gonna be a hard hole to dig yourselves out of, so you always have that thought in your mind too.
“So, this one definitely stands out, because it has all of the elements that we’ve done from records in the past up to this point. There’s a lot of thrash and blast elements – the drums on this one – which we put a little more into the Testament songs these days, but I think it’s just the attitude of this record. All in all, every song from the start of the record to the end, it’s steamrolling. There’s no ballads, no slowdown. Everything’s kind of pretty thrashy.”
A “thrashy” jaunt from the Californian collective, it would be fair to say Brotherhood Of The Snake is among the heavier records in the Testament catalogue. “I would say that Demonic (June 1997) is probably our heaviest in the catalogue (laughs), but I would say for us – as far as just the songs, the feeling, the production – we’re really happy with the way you can hear all of the instruments; the bass and everything, and all of Gene’s cymbal hits,” the mainman ponders. “Everything is there, and it makes for an enjoyable listen. When you hear great songs from bands but it doesn’t sound well and it’s not soothing to the ear, it’s hard to replay. When you’ve got stuff that’s soothing though, those are the records that they tend to put on more often because they’re just soothing, and you know that they’re soothing.”
In a May 2016 interview with Metal Forces, Eric Peterson musically compared Brotherhood Of The Snake to the likes of Demonic and The Gathering, but felt that Chuck’s vocals were more in the vein of July 2012 predecessor Dark Roots Of Earth. “I tried to take an approach this time…,” he begins. “Because when I get a song and I hear it, I go by instinct. Whenever we have a fast thrash song, my first instinct is to just sing fast with it, and I didn’t want to try to just do the typical thing that I would do. I kind of really said ‘Okay, I know what I will do and I can always do that, but why don’t I try to find something different?’ With the thrash songs, I always tried to change the pace of the lyrics so it’s not following the bouncing ball, and I think I did that on this record.”
Lyrically, Brotherhood Of The Snake strays away from more recent Testament fare. “The title song is called ‘Brotherhood Of The Snake’, and it’s about secret societies,” the wordsmith explains. “The Brotherhood Of The Snake was a secret society formed over 6,000 years ago, and they were basically on a crusade out to put down all other religions. Basically, their belief was that there was an alien or god – Anu – who created mankind to serve as slaves on Earth to mine for its gold and minerals. So, that’s kind of what started the idea; the process of the songwriting, and the idea of aliens.
“It’s just a fascination with me. I was watching some shows about aliens and how they were documented in different cultures around the world thousands of years ago – these modern alien beings with long arms and big heads, and these flying objects across the sky – so it made me kind of think ‘Wow, man. There’s something to this. How can this be documented? There’s gotta be something to it.’ So, that kind of started the idea of the concept.
“With this record, Eric wanted to keep away from the lyrics being so personal. I’ve been pretty personal with my lyrics over the last couple of records, so with this one, he said ‘Can we not be personal, and try to come up with an image, a concept, an idea to build off of where we can have maybe some cool lyrics and some cool songs?’ So, that’s kind of what started it. Once we ran with The Brotherhood Of The Snake and a secret society, it was kind of right up Testament’s alley – what we have written about and stuff in the past.”
Brotherhood Of The Snake covers lyrical topics such as “aliens, religion, and the creation of man,” Chuck lists. “‘The Pale King’ we have on there, ‘Seven Seals’, ‘Centuries Of Suffering’. It’s all based on the planet earth, and what we have done. It’s another part of it, talking about the concept of possible aliens creating us on earth. It makes you think that maybe we’ve been wiping ourselves out for hundreds of thousands of years, trying over and over until we get it right (laughs). Maybe where we’re at today is the closest to getting it right.”
Nevertheless, Brotherhood Of The Snake is not a concept album. “It’s not a concept record, no,” the performer clarifies. “It was just something to grab onto, an idea that wasn’t real. I’ve been writing around my father’s death, and just real things – cancer. Real things that we just didn’t wanna do. We wanted to build something, and I think The Brotherhood Of The Snake was the perfect thing to start the concept of… Not the concept, but start the pattern of songs to write about and link together. After about five or six tracks though, we couldn’t keep writing about that because it’s not a concept record. So, songs like ‘Neptune’s Spear’, or ‘Black Jack’, or ‘The Number Game’ and ‘Canna-Business’… Songs like that aren’t necessarily about secret societies and stuff. Those are different ideas.”
Brotherhood Of The Snake continues Chuck’s longterm lyrical partnerships with the likes of Exodus frontman Steve ‘Zetro’ Souza and Guns N’ Roses associate Del James. “Zetro and Del James are guys that I’ve been working with for a long time,” he remarks. “Usually, I’ve got the music, the riff, and I’ll start with that. I’ll study it and listen to it for a while, and then when I’m ready – once I get the pattern and the idea, and maybe even a concept – that’s when I’ll call Del or Zet and say ‘Let’s get together. I’ve got something going.’ We work fast; if Zet comes over, we know that we’re gonna write one song or maybe even two songs that day because we work pretty quick together. On this record, he was involved with five songs; ‘The Number Game’, ‘Canna-Business’, ‘Black Jack’, ‘Centuries Of Suffering’, and… I’ve forgotten what other song.”
Helming recording sessions was Juan Urteaga. “We’ve been working with Juan Urteaga for the last three or four records, and live records for a while,” the vocalist informs. “He’s a local engineer that we’ve been working with. He’s got a studio (Trident) in town close to home, but I think after enough working together, we felt pretty confident in using him to track the whole record – drums, vocals and everything. Yeah, I’d go in and sing a song a day. When I’d go in, I’d try to complete a song, and then I’d listen to it, come back, tweak it, and try to wrap it up.”
Brotherhood Of The Snake boasts bass parts from founding Sadus and erstwhile Death member Steve DiGiorgio, the second Testament proper to do so – the first being The Gathering. “It was awesome,” Chuck enthuses. “Stevie D, he’s the man. It’s good to have him back in the band. Steve adds not only being a great musician and bass player, but he adds another element of just personality. He’s quite a character, and keeps a nice humour on the road. Everything seems to be… I think Steve came back in just right almost where he left off. It’s like he didn’t skip a beat, so I’m glad he’s back. I think he’s glad he’s back, and it’s amazing what he did on the record, too – his bass tone, and everything he played.”
The departure of previous bassist Greg Christian was confirmed on January 13th, 2014, with Steve’s return announced that very same day. Needing a fresh rhythmist so to speak, Steve happened to be Testament’s sole choice for the position. “The only,” the frontman underlines. “He was the only person. When we did the reunion, we did the reunion thinking it was just maybe gonna be a couple of shows, but that turned into seven years. We really didn’t say ‘Oh, hey. Steve… By the way, there is no more Testament. You’re not in it – we’re doing this now.’ We never sat down, and talked about it. We just took a break. I got sick with cancer, and then I came out of the cancer. We had our reunion, so we never really got back together The Gathering line-up after my illness.
“It really ended kind of weird, because there was really no discussion about it. So, when it was time for him to come back, it was almost as if there wasn’t a discussion either. It was like ‘Okay. Do you wanna play bass?’ ‘Sure, cool.’ ‘We’re going to Australia’ (laughs). And that was it. We were off and going, and he fit right in.”
Circumstances surrounding the departure of Greg Christian seem murky. “I have no idea,” Chuck comments. “He quit the band. He left the band. He wasn’t happy with his situation in the band, and he decided to leave.”
Greg has cited financial differences as being among the reasons for his departure, with the singer and Eric earning significantly more. “Of course,” he concurs. “Me and Eric own the band. Greg doesn’t own the band. Greg left the band for nine years and wanted to come back in the band and be an equal partner, and that’s not what the deal was. Greg came back as a reunion bass player, and that turned into seven years of doing a reunion. There were never talks about ‘Hey, come on back and let’s be equal partners like we were when we started this band.’ That’s not what was gonna happen. I think he expected that, and we agreed to disagree.
“While they were off doing whatever they did in life, me and Eric held down the forte for all of those years, and they were tough years. Those were in the 90s, when it was very tough for heavy metal. We weren’t making any money. Yeah, we felt strong that ‘No. If it was you Greg, or if it was Steve, or if it was any other bass player, here’s what we’re gonna pay you to play bass in Testament. You can do whatever you wanna do.’ Like Gene, Steve and Alex; whenever they’re not in Testament, they’re doing other projects. We don’t hold them up; we don’t say ‘You’re in Testament. You can’t do anything else.’ Greg felt what he felt and decided he didn’t wanna do it, so he left. I think maybe he regrets it, and he’s talking out because of that. That’s all I can think (laughs). He got to travel and play music around the world, and didn’t have to get a job. I thought it was pretty good (laughs).”
Returning to the topic of Brotherhood Of The Snake, cover artwork duties were handled by Eliran Kantor once again. “That’s more Eric’s department,” Chuck admits. “Eric is more involved in the artwork. Eliran’s has worked with us on… I don’t know… Three, four, or five covers? Something like that? When we started working with him, he was a guy who came through pretty quick with his ideas and art. We liked that, and his work is amazing. When you take your album cover and use it as a backdrop… He’s created some really nice visual backdrops for us. It’s something that I think we’re really comfortable with. Any time we do a record or T-shirts even, posters, we’ll go to Eliran and ask him to whip something up for us because he’s pretty fast and he understands. He kind of knows now what we like and don’t like.”
Brotherhood Of The Snake was released on October 28th, 2016 via Nuclear Blast. All promotional photographs by Gene Ambo.
Interview published in October 2016.
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